Silicon Valley nears goal to lift local indoor mask mandate

Santa Clara County, Northern California’s most populous county, is nearing its goal set by health officials to lift its local indoor mask mandate, its public health director said Wednesday.

The home to Silicon Valley, Santa Clara County is one of several local governments in California to retain a universal indoor mask mandate. Other areas that have kept a local mask order include Los Angeles and Mendocino counties, and the city of Palm Springs.

As of Wednesday, Santa Clara County was averaging 555 new coronavirus cases a day over the past week — a hair’s breadth away from its goal of 550 new cases a day. Once the county hits this milestone, and stays under that level for seven consecutive days, the local indoor mask order will be lifted.

Dr. Sara Cody, the Santa Clara County public health director and health officer, said at a public meeting Wednesday she expected the county will fall below 550 new daily cases Thursday. If the case rate remains below that level for seven consecutive days, masks would become optional for vaccinated people in many indoor settings, including supermarkets, restaurants, bars, gyms and offices.

“We’re seeing very encouraging signs that this Omicron surge continues to abate,” Cody said at Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors’ health and hospital committee meeting.

“We’re very encouraged that we’re coming out of this Omicron surge,” Cody said. “We are all looking forward to a time where we can remove our masks and feel safe.”

California and federal masking requirements will still be in effect, mandating mask use in a number of limited places, such as in healthcare settings, indoor K-12 schools and childcare facilities, and public transportation.

Just two weeks ago, officials expected the county would meet this goal by early March.

Cody’s stance has come under criticism from one member of the Board of Supervisors, Cindy Chavez, who said the county implementing stricter mask rules than the state results in a “level of confusion, consternation and stress.”

Cody, one of the key architects of the nation’s first regional stay-at-home order related to the pandemic, has defended her position as appropriate to reduce risk.

“Masking overall helps to decrease the community transmission, which is still important,” Cody said. “If you prevent infection, you are preventing long COVID. … And also, there are, of course, a number of people living in our community who remain vulnerable for whatever reason because of age or underlying medical condition or vaccination status. And they still need another layer of protection until the community transmission abates a bit.”

Santa Clara County has already met two other goals Cody has set to lift the local indoor mask mandate, which was implemented last August: getting coronavirus-positive hospitalizations at a low and stable level, and getting at least 80% of residents of all ages fully vaccinated. Santa Clara County now has about 85% of all residents vaccinated.

Santa Clara County’s goal is less stringent than the one set by L.A. County to lift its mask mandate. On a per capita basis, Santa Clara County’s goal is equivalent to getting under 200 new cases a week for every 100,000 residents.

L.A. County’s goal is stricter: lifting its local mask mandate when the case rate is fewer than 50 cases a week for every 100,000 residents — equivalent to 730 cases a day — and remains that way for a week. That goal is consistent with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation of universal masking in indoor public areas when the case rate is above that level.

Santa Clara County’s goal was recently more relaxed than the CDC standard, Cody said, because “in general, people’s illness from Omicron tends to be less severe. And so, we felt that it was appropriate to modify that metric to the Omicron context.”

L.A. County public health officials have forecast that L.A. County will hit its goal to lift its mask mandate in mid- to late March. In the meantime, officials Wednesday announced new rules, set to go in effect Friday, allowing fully vaccinated people to go maskless in many indoor public settings if the businesses or venues decide to screen the inoculation status of visitors and patrons.

L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer previewed the changes at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, saying this relaxation was based on some ideas suggested earlier by Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who has been pushing for a faster easing of indoor mask mandates and has asked about loosening mask mandates at least in settings where everyone is vaccinated. Barger has urged the county Department of Public Health to adopt masking rules as lenient as the state allows.

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